Hitler’s Willing Executioners

Feb 22, 2024 by

by Ian Leslie, The Ruffian:

On the genocidal mindset.

[…]  Goldhagen wrote his book as a response to one of the periodic attempts by historians and commentators to claim that the majority of Germans participated in genocide with reluctance. On this telling, Nazism was a top-down phenomenon, enforced from above. The soldiers who carried out the killings of Jews, or the civilians who assisted them, did so for the most part because they were terrified of the consequences if they did not do so, and felt ashamed of their actions. Douglas Murray recently revived this argument in an attempt to draw a contrast with the ardour displayed by Hamas terrorists on October 7th. Goldhagen believed this interpretation of German history was delusional. In his book, he makes a meticulously argued, well-evidenced case that the German people were willing and enthusiastic prosecutors of Hitler’s war on the Jews.

Goldhagen first of all shows that what he calls the “cognitive model” of Nazi antisemitism long predated the Nazis. From the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, antisemitism was part of the base code of German society – its common sense. Contempt for Jews was shared by working class and middle class Germans; by soldiers, priests, politicians and intellectuals. It wasn’t just mild or casual anti-Semitism, either: there was an obsessive quality to it. In earlier eras of European history, Jews had been regarded as malevolent but peripheral. Modern Germans saw them as the diseased source of all the country’s troubles.

The German strain of antisemitism was always violent in imagery, rhetoric and action: pogroms of Jews were carried out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Crucially, it always tended towards the idea of elimination, by whatever means necessary. There would be no peace in Germany, it was claimed, until the Jews were destroyed. In 1932, before Hitler came to power, the writer Theodor Lessing said what many Germans believed: that “it would be simplest to kill the 12 or 14 million Jews”.

Hitler, who openly expressed a desire to eliminate the Jews from his earliest days in public life onwards, merely weaponised what were widespread and longstanding public attitudes. When the Nazis came to power and organised brutal attacks on Jews, non-Jewish Germans were for the most part happy to either look the other way, or help out the persecutors. They gave consent to the exclusion of Jews from civilised society and to Jews being hounded from their homes, beaten and murdered. In the wake of this violence, Hitler only became more popular. Finally, someone was getting a grip on ‘the Jewish problem’.

Dissenting voices were very rare, even among men of the cloth.

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